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Equal Freedom Über Alles

The cultural revolution now underway is destroying even liberal religion

Damon Linker, who supports same-sex marriage, says if you had told him 20 years ago that in 2015, we would have gay marriage anywhere, much less in Ireland, he would have thought you were crazy. And yet, here we are — and again, Linker thinks this is marvelous. But he can’t leave it at that:

This is a very big deal in the history of Christian culture and the moral evolution of Western civilization. Perhaps more than any previous milestone in the West’s headlong lunge toward the complete public acceptance (and affirmation) of homosexuality, this one cries out for sober reflection on how we got here — and where we’re going.

I agree, it is exactly that. Linker says that the advance of gay rights reveals that institutional religion is stuck in a Catch-22.

Traditional religion, he contends, cannot withstand the appeal to equality, which Linker defines as “the equal dignity of all persons” — a position that is profoundly Christian. (But what, I would ask Damon, is a person? “Equal dignity” does not mean that everyone should have an equal right to believe and to do whatever they want. But that’s a different argument.) Any dogma or doctrine held by churches that is deemed contrary to Equality melts like wax before a flame. The Catholic writer James Kalb has called the essence of liberalism — that is, the post-Enlightenment forms of thought that define both conservative and liberal politics in the West — “equal freedom,” which he explains in this interview, about his book The Tyranny of Liberalism:

 By liberalism I mean the view that equal freedom is the highest political, social, and moral principle. The big goal is to be able to do and get what we want, as much and as equally as possible.

That view comes from the view that transcendent standards don’t exist–or what amounts to the same thing, that they aren’t publicly knowable. That leaves desire as the standard for action, along with logic and knowledge of how to get what we want.

Desires are all equally desires, so they all equally deserve satisfaction. Nothing is exempt from the system, so everything becomes a resource to be used for our purposes. The end result is an overall project of reconstructing social life to make it a rational system for maximum equal preference satisfaction.

That’s what liberalism is now, and everything else has to give way to it. For example, traditional ties like family and inherited culture aren’t egalitarian or hedonistic or technologically rational. They have their own concerns. So they have to be done away with or turned into private hobbies that people can take or leave as they like. Anything else would violate freedom and equality.

Equal Freedom is the absolute telos of our civilization now. It is the real religion of the West. And yet, this liberalization is bad for liberal forms of institutional religion too. Back to Linker:

As observers and critics have long pointed out, liberal Christianity tends to downplay the importance of formal worship, set liturgy, fixed traditions, and the imposition of sanctions for bad behavior. In their place, it substitutes a moral critique of existing norms and practices that is easily dispersed throughout the wider culture. That’s why it’s perfectly possible, and even predicable, that at a time when liberal Christian moral ideals are gaining in influence and cultural power, the actual churches that preach liberal Christianity are in steep demographic decline. (This might also explain why Pope Francis’s enormously popular, non-judgmental, pastoral approach to the papacy hasn’t translated into any measurable uptick in mass attendance or other forms of religious observance among Catholics.)

Apostasy to the left of them, apostasy to the right of them. It is hard to see how institutional religion as a mass phenomenon survives this. Liberalism is a universal solvent of religion, even its own favored forms of religion.